The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Revivre (화장, Im Kwon-taek, 2015)

revivreThe 102nd film from veteran Korean film director Im Kwon-taek may appear close to the bone in its depictions death, suffering, and the long look back on a life filled with the quiet kind of love but Revivre (화장, Hwajang) is anything but afraid to ask the questions most would not want to hear as the light dwindles. The inner journey is just too hazy, as one man puts it, unknowingly commenting on the human condition, yet Im does manage bring us nicely into focus, if only for a moment.

Oh (Ahn Sung-ki), a successful salaryman working in marketing for a cosmetics company, finds himself slightly adrift as the brain tumour his wife, Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-Jung), had previously suffered from resurfaces. The treatment this time is apparently not as successful leading to prolonged hospitals stays as Jin-kyung’s condition deteriorates and she begins to require a greater level of medical care. While all of this is going on, Oh is still very much dedicated to his work but has also begun to indulge in an old man’s folly, fantasising about the pretty new girl at the office.

Much of Revivre is concerned with Oh’s inner life, the things he does not say (which are many because Oh is a quiet sort of man). Ahn Sung-ki captures this quality well in playing Oh with a kind of blankness that could be the numbing sensation of grief or an extension of his ordinarily reserved nature. This makes his impromptu verbal attack on the figure of his fixation, Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), all the more unexpected though his remorse over having acted in such an out of character way may actually help to generate a kind of relationship between the pair albeit more of a paternal than romantic one.

Oh’s continuing fixation on Eun-joo, the woman who becomes the accidental focus of his world even though his wife lying dies in a hospital, is intended to be a fantasy and nothing more. An early dream sequence sees Oh participating in an elaborate traditional funeral taking place in a desert in which all of the mourners are dressed in black, except, of course, for Eun-joo – the only fixed point of reference, clothed in vibrant purple and smiling back at him in contrast to the solemn faces of the other guests, each staring at the floor. In the real world time slows down for him as Eun-joo dances youthfully in a nightclub and as he leaves the party early, her’s is the lone still face, haunting him as he looks back at the other revellers still enjoying themselves heartily even outside the club.

Indeed, “looking back” with all of its various advantages and disadvantages becomes another central theme as Oh becomes a kind of Orpheus descending into his own personal hell in the hope of dragging back his departed Eurydice – an idea neatly recreated in one of the film’s few outright fantasy sequences in which Oh dreams himself into an avant-garde dance show. Like Orpheus, Oh cannot help but look back though he risks losing all in the process. What Eun-joo represents for him is perhaps not the woman herself but an image of his own youth and a desire to live again as he once lived before. The present and the past begin to overlap for him, Eun-joo becomes the future he cannot touch as well as the returning spectre of a past he cannot return to.

Oh’s daughter asks him at one point if he ever really loved her mother. His reaction to losing his wife is, it has to be said, restrained, practical. Yet this question is answered with an immediate cut to Oh helping his wife to the bathroom, performing the most intimate of tasks with unwavering devotion. As his wife fades, Oh’s fantasies become a shield against the growing fears of his own mortality as his body also begins to fail him. The melancholy sense of loss and loneliness coupled with the inevitability of the passage of time pervade as each of Oh’s points of reference slips away from him at exactly the same time.

Im opts for a non-linear approach beginning with Jin-kyung’s passing and thereafter moving freely, reflecting Oh’s fleeting memories and interior confusion as he deals with such a traumatic, life altering event. Neatly framing Oh’s dilemma within his work in which he faces a choice of sticking with the current marketing strategy or striking out in a bold new direction, Im plays with the eternal theme of transient beauty in a society which prizes bodily perfection above all else. The film’s Korean title plays on a pun involving a homonym which means both “cremation” and “makeup” perhaps harking back to the central theme that you dig a grave for yourself if you attach the wrong sort of importance to the impermanent, but is in a sense ironic as one represents a final acceptance and the other an attempt to hold off the inevitable. Poetic and intensely moving, Revivre is another characteristically multilayered effort from Im, still at his full strength even in this late career effort.


International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

The Piper (손님, Kim Gwang-tae, 2015)

PiperPosterReview of Kim Gwang-tae’s The Piper (손님, Sonnim) up at UK Anime Network. I really liked this one!


The piper must be paid. So goes the old saying, and with good reason – one should always honour one’s promises but even so there are those should not be crossed. So the denizens at the centre of the mysterious hidden village in the debut feature from Korean director Kim Gwang-tae come to discover as they’re repaid for some not quite unforgotten sins when a travelling piper and his invalid son come calling.

Kim Woo-ryong is a travelling piper with a crippled leg journeying to Seoul with his young son after hearing that there is an American doctor there who may be able to treat the boy’s TB if only they can reach the city in time. After walking through the countryside they eventually come across a village which isn’t marked on any map and beg shelter from the village chieftain there. Life in the village seems like a scene from the middle ages, everyone is wearing traditional clothing and there’s something more than a “stranger in town” vibe about the way they look at Woo-ryong and his son Young-nam. The chieftain allows the pair to stay but warns them they can reveal nothing of the outside world to the village’s inhabitants and especially not that the Korean war is already “over” and has been for some time. Later Woo-ryong and Young-nam wander into a village dispute and in a fit of over helpfulness Young-nam exclaims he’s sure his dad can fix the problem (though he doesn’t know what it is). Woo-ryong jumps to the conclusion it must be about the rats which plague the town and offers to take care of them. The chieftain offers him the price of a cow if he can rid the town of vermin, but one gets the impression there’s more than one kind of rodent lurking in this strange, isolated place.

If you know the classic children’s fable, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, you likely know the outcome won’t be a pleasant one though the events of the The Piper turn a little bloodier and even more supernatural than in the Brothers Grimm  fairytale. The story starts out pleasant enough as Woo-ryong and Young-nam start to make friends in the village – Woo-ryong playing his pipe and Young-nam enjoying spending some time with the other children. However, from their very first entrance you can tell there is something very wrong in this community. There’s not just suspicion or curiosity in the way the villagers stare at the strangers, there’s fear too. Woo-ryong is a middle aged man with a lame leg, and Young-nam is a weedy 10 year old boy with a lung disease. They are no threat to anyone, what do these people have to fear?

The chieftain himself is obviously quite a sinister fellow. He charms Woo-ryong but lies to him when asked for guidance about the journey on to Seoul and seems to instil nothing but fear in the eyes of the other inhabitants. Woo-ryong strikes up a tentative romance with the village’s reluctant shaman which further raises the chieftain’s concerns – perhaps, he thinks, he doesn’t need to pay this piper after all. As might be expected, there’s a dark past at play here. Everyone is so terrified of the war, which they still believe is going on, and the things they’ve already done to survive that they’re prepared to go along with whatever their leader says to maintain their peaceful village life. Mob mentality at its worst, even those who were growing closer to the pair of strangers are quick to turn on them in a paranoid frenzy.

Like the original story, the moral is that you reap what you sew and if you don’t keep your promises, you deserve everything that’s coming to you. These are people who have lived in difficult times and done cruel things to survive. The rats which plague the town take on an almost supernatural air and have apparently developed a taste for human flesh. They become a kind of metaphor, a haunting presence which refuses to allow the villagers to forget the crimes they’ve committed and reminds them that their present safety was bought with innocent blood. A perfectly pitched fairytale with an all pervading sense of dread and foreboding, The Piper is an impressive effort from first time director Kim Gwang-tae and marks him out as a promising new voice in the world of Korean cinema.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.